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J. Kashi

Understanding the Quran

The name al-Qur’ān (“the Quran” as it appears on this website and throughout) is the most recognized name of the Sacred Text of the revelated religion of Islam. It is also the name that the Scripture of the Quran uses most often to identify itself.

Al-Qur’ān is commonly pronounced with a glottal pause (often represented in English transliteration by an apostrophe) between the Arabic letter /r/ (rolled r-sound) and the subsequent /a/ (long-vowel a-sound), correctly transliterated as ‘Qur’ān’. The word is not uncommonly pronounced in Arabic without the glottal sound, in which case it also may be represented in English as ‘Qurān’.

Older Anglicized renderings, such as ‘Koran’, or the Francophone ‘Coran,’ have been steadily abandoned, although they are preserved in historical documents (and in foreign languages like German and French where it’s the prevailing way of spelling). This website represents the word ‘Quran’ without vocalization symbols or diacritical marks, owing to its commonness on both this site and, increasingly, in the English language.

The Quran is divided into suwār (s. sūrah) and the suwār into ayāt (s. ayah). Both singular words have almost universally been anglicized as ‘surahs’ and ‘ayahs’, this form has also been adapted on this website. Surah, as a division of the Quran, is sometimes translated by the English ‘chapter’, though this is inevitably and, perhaps, substantially misleading. The term ‘verses’, for the Arabic ayah, has gained acceptance based on an analogy with other sacred texts, and in this sense is not confusing (even while a great deal is lost in using the word ‘verse’ to translate the Quranic term ayah). There are other textual devices that Muslims subsequently have used as measurements for the Quran (e.g. Manzil, Juz, Hizb etc.), but they are considered external and supplementary aids for ease, reading and memorization.

The Quran in print today is made up of one hundred fourteen (114) surahs, with a total of six thousand two hundred thirty-six (6,236) ayahs. They contain a sum of seventy-seven thousand four hundred ninety-seven (77,497) words (or kalimāt, s. kalimah). The book itself, as printed today, covers less than 500 small pages.

The Quran in Translation

Every new translation brings new understanding, that in itself is a worthwhile endeavour. But in any translation, much of the original is lost, as the translation is bound in the nature of things to be but a poor copy of the original work. All translation is, in essence, a Sisyphean activity, inevitably falling short of perfection, by which, the reader must ultimately judge the distance remaining to the top.

This is especially true about the Quran in translations, where some translations are either disappointing, unconvincing, lacking in cohesion, clarity or grandeur, or limited in the rhythm and power, of the original Arabic Quran. No translation of the Quran is entirely satisfactory.

English Translations of the Quran

Most important English translations from the original Arabic (printed in Europe or the USA) are listed here, together with a few others of historical importance. Other translations in Farsi, Urdu and other languages are not included. The date on the left is that of the first edition:

By non-Muslims

Year Translator, Title, Published
1649 Alexander Ross, The Alcoran of Mahomet Translated out of Arabique into French by the Sieur Du Ryer, Lord of Malezair, and Resident of the King of France at Alexandria and newly Englished for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities, London 1649
1734 George Sale, The Koran: Commonly called the Alkoran of Mohammed. Translated into English from the Original Arabic. With explanatory notes taken from the most approved commentators, London: Frederick Warme and Co. nd.
1861 J. M. Rodwell, The Koran Translated From the Arabic, London: J. M. Dent
1880 E. H. Palmer, The Qur’an (2 vols), Oxford: Clarendon Press
1937 Richard Bell, The Qur’an, translated with a critical re-arrangement of the surahs (2 vols), Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark
1955 Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, Oxford: Oxford University Press
1956 N. J. Dawood, The Koran (5th revised ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1990, further revised 1995

By Ahmadiyya

Year Translator, Title, Published
1917 Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur-an, containing the Arabic text with English translation and commentary, Woking: Islamic Review Office 1917
1971 Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, The Quran: Arabic Text, English Translation (4rd ed.), London: Curzon

By Muslims

Year Translator, Title, Published
1930 Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, New York: Dorset Press
1934 Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary, Leicester: Islamic Foundation (recently revised and corrected independently by two other Muslim organizations)
1964 S. V. Mir Ahmed Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an Inc.
1970 M. H. Shakir, The Qur’an, New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an Inc.
1974 Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English Language, Maktaba Dar-us-Salam: Riyadh
1980 Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus 1980
1984 Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation (revised definitive edition, third printing with corrections), Princeton: Princeton University Press
1990 M. Khatib, The Bounteous Qur’an, London: Macmillan
1991 Ahmad Zidan and Mrs Diana Zidan, Translation of the Glorious Qur’an, London: Ta-Ha Publishers 1991
1992 T. B. Irving, The Noble Qur’an, Amana Books: Vermont, USA

The Quran and its Translations

The Quran was revealed in Arabic, and as such (from a theological perspective), it is the Arabic version that is considered the true Quran - as the direct word of God - and read in e.g. acts of worship. No translation is considered to be the Quran or word of God as such, and none has the same status as the Arabic. Translations are considered merely as renderings of meanings (i.e. interpretation) of the Quran, and no translation can claim the status of being equal to the original Arabic Quran. In this respect, Christian readers will realise that the Quran clearly differs from the Bible.

The first revelation of the Quran came in early 610 CE. After this date the revelation arrived gradually until it was completed in 632, shortly before the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

The first Western translation came some 511 years after, this in Latin, entitled Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete by Robert of Ketton, in 1143 - and even this remained relatively unknown for the next 400 years until it was printed in 1543 - more than 900 years after the first revelation. The first translation of the Quran into English was undertaken by Alexander Ross (Ross did not know any Arabic and based his translation on a French translation), first published in 1649. This year marks the beginning of English translations of the Quran.

English translators of the Quran have different backgrounds and agendas: Ross, Rodwell and Bell were Christian clerics, and Bell was also an academic, as were Palmer and Arberry. Sale was a solicitor and Pickthall was an English Muslim novelist. Ross undertook his translation for the satisfaction of those who desired to look into the Muslim vanities and tried to reassure his readers that there was no danger in this. He did not have the qualifications or the required objectivity for the task, but he should be celebrated for his privileged position of being the first to introduce the Quran in English. Sale, on the other hand, intended to produce a better-explained English translation. He could not really have had the required knowledge of Arabic but relied on the Latin translation by Father Ludovico Marrac, published in 1698, entitled Alcorani textus universus. Sale showed noteworthy objectivity for the time of his work and was more accurate and clearer but lacking in literary effect. Rodwell’s translation, in contrast, was in some respects a retrograde step. He tried to show the historical origins and shortcomings of the Quran, thus his objectivity was questionable, but he produced a version written in a better style of English than that of Sale. He was the first to introduce a rearrangement of the Quranic material. His insufficient knowledge of Arabic and lack of awareness of the very special style of the Quran work to the detriment of his translation. Palmer, whose translation came closely after Rodwell’s, was, however, the first Arabist among the English translators to show a better understanding of the style of the Quran.

Pickthall was the first Muslim to translate the Quran into English and his respect for the text is clear. In direct contrast, Bell’s aim above all was to conduct a deconstruction of the text of the Quran. In this he showed a lack of objectivity and outlined bizarre views that did not command respect or acceptance from scholars of the Quran. Bell is the only translation since Sale’s in 1735 that did not earn acceptability. Arberry was the best-qualified translator, in terms of his knowledge of Arabic and his proven ability to translate Arabic literature.

Although there are now over a hundred English-language translations of the Quran, none of them is entirely satisfactory and some are extremely unreliable.

Among the 20th century translations of the Quran, it remains for us to recommend a translation of the Qur’an. Unfortunately none is entirely satisfactory. Those by Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Pickthall are the most popular of the classic work with Muslims. The former is the more accurate of the two, but both are generally reliable. However neither is very consistent: they often translate an Arabic word or phrase in a variety of different ways, which makes it difficult for the reader to appreciate the structural unity of individual surahs and the Quran as a whole. In this respect, the non-Muslim translation by Arberry is far superior. It is, however, very difficult to use for reference purposes, because the numbers of the ayahs do not correspond to those of the standard edition of numbering, which is now regarded as the norm.

The advantage of Yusuf Ali, Pickthall and Arberry over more modern translations is that they clearly distinguish between the second person singular ‘thou’ and the second person plural ‘ye’ or ‘you’. If you prefer modern English, the translation by Shakir and Irving are serviceable.

The reader should be warned of serious defects in several other translations:

  • Reading into the text the tenets of the self-styled “Ahmadiyya movement”, e.g. references to Jesus being taken down alive from the cross.
  • Elimination of miracles, and references to the jinn.
  • Making descriptions of the creation and the created order accord with modern scientific theory
  • Making the references to women, prescribed punishments and other ethical issues per modern European values
  • Reading into the text ultra-traditionalist interpretations of references to the woman and other legal matters
  • An inadequate grasp of English

Some translations should be studiously avoided, and several others need to be read with caution.

Among the 21st century translations of the Quran, Ali Quli Qara’i (2003), Muhammad Abdel Haleem (2004) and Tarif Khalidi (2008) are three contemporary translators, each with different approaches, that are all highly esteemed.